The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The human rights community lost a champion

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) waves to protesters during a mass rally of the opposition in Kiev, Ukraine, on Dec. 15, 2013. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

With the possible exception of the U.S. military (including veterans and families), no group was more indebted to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) than the human rights community. Whether it was Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, Cuba, China or anywhere else on the planet, McCain understood that America must be the friend, protector and advocate of oppressed people. In May 2017, he wrote for the New York Times:

America didn’t invent human rights. Those rights are common to all people: nations, cultures and religions cannot choose to simply opt out of them.

Human rights exist above the state and beyond history. They cannot be rescinded by one government any more than they can be granted by another. They inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they may be abridged, they can never be extinguished.

We are a country with a conscience. We have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it. We are the chief architect and defender of an international order governed by rules derived from our political and economic values. We have grown vastly wealthier and more powerful under those rules. More of humanity than ever before lives in freedom and out of poverty because of those rules.

Our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.

He traveled the world to meet with dissidents, criticize dictators and support those struggling for freedom. Among his memorable trips was his visit to Ukraine to speak to protesters in Maidan Square:

Tom Malinowski, current Democratic candidate for Congress in New Jersey and former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President Barack Obama, lauded McCain’s efforts “to curb corruption in our politics, to his stewardship of legislation confronting tyrants and human rights abusers, to his insistence on regular order in the Senate, to passing the law that outlawed torture.” Malinowski recalled:

… when he saw a challenge at home or overseas, whether climate change or our broken immigration system or the uprisings of the Arab Spring, he never calculated the odds of success; he just tried to do what he thought was right. And the more lost and honorable and lonely the cause, the more he wanted to get in the fight.
In 2012, after the United States had helped the Libyan people topple the Qadaffi regime, an effort he had championed, I told him that the new government there was imprisoning African migrants in brutal conditions.  So he got on a plane and confronted the problem himself.  I will always remember the incredible sight of John McCain going from cell to cell in a Libyan prison, with several other bemused Senators and terrified US embassy staff trailing behind him, hearing out the inmates and jabbing his finger in the chest of the warden demanding to know if he was torturing people.

Likewise, Freedom House paid tribute to its strongest ally in the Senate: “His service as a U.S. Senator brought honor to Washington and to efforts to protect and expand democracy and fundamental freedoms. He helped shine a powerful spotlight on individuals responsible for large-scale corruption and human rights abuses  through his fight for passage of the Magnitsky Act and the Global Magnitsky Act — among the most important laws promoting freedom of the last half century.  Freedom House will remember him as the enemy of autocrats and one of democracy’s greatest allies.”

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McCain understood that America not only had to advocate for freedom but also model for others the behavior of a free society. Hence, he stood up for press freedom when President Trump deployed the Stalinist insult “enemy of the people,” fought for legislation outlawing torture and called for the Senate to reject Gina Haspel as CIA director.

This is why you see leading lights in the human rights community — Natan Sharansky, Garry Kasparov, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the National Democratic Institute, Bill Browder (who championed the Magnitsky Act), the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Human Rights Watch, the International Republican Institute, UN Watch, and many more — issuing such heartfelt expressions of grief, affection and respect for McCain. Human rights are international, McCain knew, and so is the praise for a lost champion.